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DEAR FATHER | Popular saying ties God to a relationship that is not necessarily true

What is your take on the phrase, ‘God helps those who help themselves?’

This popular phrase is assumed to not only be good advice but Scriptural besides. The phrase itself calls us to action. By our choice to act, God will follow with His grace to see our work through to its successful completion.

Before accepting it implicitly, let us take a deeper look at this phrase.

One can’t find this phrase anywhere in Scripture. The phrase in reality comes from Aesop’s Fables. In the story of Hercules and the wagoner, the wagon driver who is stuck in the mud calls out to Hercules for help in getting his cart unstuck. Hercules, though, replies that the wagon driver himself needs to try to get the wagon unstuck and the gods will help him.

If it’s not scriptural, is it at least good advice for a Christian? No, I don’t believe so.

This phrase puts an undue emphasis on our action in life. If we act, according to the logic of this phrase, God will act. His action, then, is predicated on our action.

Such an idea, when we look at who we believe God to be, doesn’t follow. For instance, we name God as the omnipotent creator in our creed. How can the action of the creator follow the action or inaction of the creature? How can an all-powerful being follow the power of a finite creature? Such a phrase ties God to a relationship that isn’t necessarily true.

Breaking down this phrase doesn’t mean God acts independently from us or we from Him. Instead, God condescends to allow us to work with Him. St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, explains this relationship when he writes, “Working together with Him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1).

The Christian understanding doesn’t see God following us. Rather, He works in and around us. Before we act, we pray and are open to God’s action and direction. After receiving it, we act, with God’s grace surrounding us the whole time to see it through to a successful completion. Upon such a completion, we thank God for His help, knowing humbly too of His pleasure in our prayer.

“God helps those who help themselves” is a motivational phrase to spur one to action, just as Hercules was spurring the wagon driver to action. But when we understand the great dignity God has given us by being His co-workers, this phrase no longer is the only one that can get us moving. Perhaps try using the phrase, “I am a co-worker with God.” Such a phrase is more correct for a Christian, but also puts God besides me on the couch, urging me to get up and follow His direction for my life.

Father Mayo is pastor of St. Raphael Parish in south St. Louis. 

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